The Lost Coast – A Northern California Escape

The Lost Coast stretches across Humboldt and Mendocino Counties and includes the King Range Conservation Area. The ruggedness of the terrain has hindered development in the region, making it the least populated and most remote area on the California coast. Only a few communities (Shelter Cove, Petrolia, and Whitehorn) exist in the area referred to as the Lost Coast.

The King Range National Conservation Area, managed by the BLM, encompasses 35 miles of rugged beaches and 68,000 roadless acres of wilderness. The BLM warns visitors of ticks, poison oak, rattle snakes, bears, high water crossings, and rogue waves.

While many attempt to hike this stretch of coast during the dry summer months, it is fairly uncommon and often impassable during the winter.

One afternoon in February, with a winter storm approaching on the radar, my girlfriend and I set out to hike the Lost Coast with our three dogs. We arranged for Sherry of Lost Coast Shuttles to pick the five of us up at Shelter Cove and drop us off at Mattole Beach. This is the recommended route, since the wind is at your back as you hike South along the beach. Sherri provided a great service and gave us valuable information that would help us along the way.

We were dropped off at Mattole Beach and were now on our own. Our car was parked approximately 24 miles south of us and we had two and a half days to get there. It was time to start walking. Within a mile of hiking, we knew we were being followed. Sea lions had been swimming alongside us and watching our movements with an intense, playful curiosity.

David N. Braun Photography
Prior to leaving, we had been tracking a winter storm on the radar, but were confident that it would  only impact us on the first night. As we approached the abandoned Punta Gorda Lighthouse, the winds had already intensified and it had just started raining.  It was also getting late and there was no way we could make it past the first high tide zone. On the Lost Coast there are two separate, five-mile zones that are impassable during high tide.  For this reason, it is essential to carry a tide chart. We decided to play it safe and spend the night in the lighthouse. We built a fire outside the lighthouse and witnessed an amazing, vibrant sunset just prior to being hit by an intense, but fast moving winter storm. It rained heavily throughout the night and the winds were powerful. The dogs slept in the lighthouse with us, just outside our tent. The wind and rain was so loud that we barely slept at all, but we knew we had to start hiking at first light in order to make it through the first five-mile impassable zone before the tide started coming up again. While it was still dark out we packed up our tent and began to hike again. We knew this would be a demanding day since our goal was to reach Big Flat, located about 14 miles south of the Punta Gorda Lighthouse.
David N. Braun Photography

The creek crossings were all manageable since it had been such a dry winter. It rained on and off during this portion of the hike and the winds were relatively strong, but we didn’t encounter anything close to what we had experienced the first night in the lighthouse. We quickly made it through the first impassable zone before the tide came up and continued on our way to Big Flat. We ended up hiking from sunrise to sunset and arrived at our destination exhausted. The dogs were wiped out too. We made another fire on the beach where we set up our tent and watched the sun set over the Pacific.

Before we knew it, it was time to do it all over again. Again, we had to be hiking at first light to make it past the next impassable zone. The impassable zones are not to be taken lightly. There are certain sections within these zones where one would likely not be able to climb out if one had to. We only saw two groups of hikers during the three days we were out there. One of the groups said they had just gotten caught in one of the impassable zones while the tide was still up and had to wait up in the rocks until the water receded. I didn’t get the impression that they had a good time. We paid close attention to our tide charts and didn’t take any chances. The scariest moment we had in the impassable zones was when, after walking for ten miles in a bit of a haze,  I nearly stepped on an Elephant Seal and it roared at me.

Beach camp - David Braun

The black sand beaches and inland mountains were spectacular, but this trip was especially meaningful to me since it would be among the last of many backpacking trips I took with my dog and best friend, River.  Sadly, he passed away unexpectedly the following summer, to a condition known as bloat.  When all was said and done, the four of us experienced 24 miles of a dramatic and rugged coastline that can only be accessed by foot and has remained largely unchanged by humans.
 
 
 

About the author

An avid outdoorsman, David, routinely climbs 10 - 14,000 ft peaks in the Sierra, snowboards, mountain bikes, and is slowly learning to surf. He has hiked the entire Na Pali coast in Kauai, the Lost Coast in California, summited Mt. Whitney, navigated through slot canyons in Utah, and explored some truly remote places in Nevada. As photographer and owner of GoWestFoto, the recurring theme of David's work is the American West and the great outdoors. He has documented his experiences with his camera, drawing inspiration from the noted wilderness photographer and climber Galen Rowell and the great American photographer-environmentalist Ansel Adams.

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